Source: The New York Times
President Trump plans to invite President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to Washington for another meeting in the fall, officials said Thursday, even as Mr. Trump’s top advisers groped for details of what the two leaders discussed in their last meeting in Helsinki, Finland.
Mr. Trump’s director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, acknowledged frustration at being kept in the dark about the meeting, which included only the leaders and their respective interpreters. “If he had asked me how that ought to be conducted,” Mr. Coats said at a security conference in Aspen, Colo., “I would have suggested a different way. It is what it is.”
As the questions mounted, the White House rejected a proposal by Mr. Putin to question American citizens, including a former ambassador to Moscow, Michael A. McFaul, in return for giving the United States access to 12 Russian military intelligence officers indicted for their role in trying to sabotage the 2016 election.
That reversed its statement a day earlier that Mr. Trump was still open to the idea. Diplomats and other former officials expressed outrage that Mr. Trump would consider turning over Americans to Mr. Putin as part of a politically motivated case against William F. Browder, an American-born financier critical of the Russian president.
“It is a proposal that was made in sincerity by President Putin, but President Trump disagrees with it,” the press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said in a statement. “Hopefully, President Putin will have the 12 identified Russians come to the United States to prove their innocence or guilt.”
On Monday, after meeting Mr. Putin in Helsinki, Finland, Mr. Trump praised his proposal as an “incredible offer.” Two days later, Ms. Sanders said Mr. Trump still viewed it as an “interesting idea” and was discussing it with his staff.
But other officials recoiled at the idea of turning over Americans to Russia, and insisted that the proposal had not gained traction within the government. The State Department dismissed the allegations against Mr. McFaul and the other Americans as “absurd.”
It was the latest attempt by the White House to clean up statements by and about Mr. Trump’s meeting with Mr. Putin, which has left a murky trail of unanswered questions about what the two leaders agreed to in their two-and-a-half-hour session, when only their interpreters were in the room with them.
Mr. Putin apparently offered a deal in which Russia would allow the special counsel in the Russia investigation, Robert S. Mueller III, to question the 12 intelligence officers accused last week of hacking the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign during the 2016 election.
In return, Mr. Putin asked Mr. Trump for access to a list of Americans he claimed were involved in illegal dealings with Mr. Browder, who was blacklisted and convicted of tax evasion by Russia after he campaigned against corruption in Russian companies.
“He didn’t commit to anything,” Ms. Sanders said on Wednesday. “He wants to work with his team and determine whether there’s any validity that would be helpful to the process.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a much stronger rejection than the president’s secondhand one, saying flatly of the idea of sending Mr. McFaul or other Americans to Russia for interrogation: “Yeah, that’s not going to happen.”
“The administration is not going to send, force Americans to travel to Russia to be interrogated by Vladimir Putin and his team,” Mr. Pompeo said in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network that is slated to air on Friday, according to excerpts released on Thursday.
Among those on Mr. Putin’s list is Mr. McFaul, who served in the White House and as ambassador to Russia under President Barack Obama, as well as current and former officials from the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and the intelligence agencies.
Mr. McFaul, a Stanford professor and Russia scholar, was critical of Mr. Putin and the Russian government during his tour in Moscow, and he has continued to write and speak about Russia. He described the proposal as “absolutely outrageous,” and said it was merely an attempt to intimidate him.
“What they’re doing is allowing a moral equivalency between a legitimate indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officers for interfering in our election with a cockamamie, crazy story that it sounds like Putin spun to our president in Helsinki,” Mr. McFaul said.
Mr. McFaul mounted a vigorous campaign on Twitter and in interviews, and drew support from a wide range of prominent figures. Mrs. Clinton, a former secretary of state, said on Twitter: “Ambassador McFaul is a patriot who spent his career standing up for America. To see the White House even hesitate to defend a diplomat is deeply troubling.”
Four Democratic senators called for the Senate to pass a resolution demanding that the White House reject Mr. Putin’s proposal. “That President Trump would even consider handing over a former U.S. ambassador to Putin and his cronies for interrogation is bewildering,” said the Senate Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer of New York.
Legal experts said Mr. Trump had no authority to turn over Mr. McFaul or any of the other Americans, or even to force them to face Russian questioning. The United States does not have an extradition treaty with Russia. Under a mutual legal assistance treaty between the two countries, the Justice Department can reject any request relating to a case it deems politically motivated — a classification it has long given to Russia’s case against Mr. Browder.
The State Department reiterated that view on Wednesday. “We do not stand by those assertions that the Russian government makes,” the spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, said. “The prosecutor general in Russia is well aware that the United States has rejected Russian allegations in this regard.”
But the names on Russia’s list offered a telling glimpse into Mr. Putin’s grudges, as well as how he might have tried to appeal to Mr. Trump.
According to a report by the Russian news agency Interfax, they include David J. Kramer, a former adviser to the State Department, now at the McCain Institute for International Leadership; Jonathan M. Winer, a former aide to Secretary of State John Kerry; and Todd Hyman, an official in the Department of Homeland Security.
What several of these people have in common is their involvement in or support for the Magnitsky Act, a law passed by Congress in 2012 that blacklisted Russian officials involved in human rights abuses. It was named for Sergei L. Magnitsky, a lawyer and auditor who worked for Mr. Browder and died after being beaten in a Moscow prison cell.
Mr. Putin and other Russian officials have long chafed at the Magnitsky Act — because the United States can use it to target Putin cronies, because it is a potent symbol of the brutality in Mr. Putin’s Russia and because Mr. Browder campaigned tirelessly for it.
Other names on Mr. Putin’s list also have links to Christopher Steele, the British former intelligence agent who compiled a dossier alleging that the Trump campaign and the Russian government conspired to hand the 2016 election to Mr. Trump.
Mr. Winer, who served as the special envoy for Libya during the Obama administration, is a lawyer for Mr. Browder who knew Mr. Steele from his work on Russian organized crime during the earlier stint at the State Department. In September 2016, he circulated a two-page summary of Mr. Steele’s findings within the State Department.
Speaking before the White House issued its latest statement, Mr. Winer said: “This is about harassment and intimidation by two people who wish to manipulate rule of law to go after one another’s opponents. It’s grossly abusive and in a rule of law country like the United States, it will go nowhere.”